How I did it: Muzzle Blast from a .357

In the days before Photoshop, if you had an idea for a photograph you had to figure out how to do it in a single frame. And if you happen to work for a newspaper, that was the ONLY way to uphold journalistic ethics. A composite was out of the question.

I wanted to illustrate a story on handgun training. What better way than to get someone shooting a gun. Oh, I could have done it just fine by using a long lens from the side. Boring! My thought was to put the camera in front of the gun, use a wide angle lens and get the muzzle blast. But how? No way was I going to stand in front of a weapon as it was fired, even by someone I trusted. So the first issue was camera placement. 

The position of the camera was probably the most straightforward part of the project. The subject put hands out as if holding a revolver and I framed the shot with a 20mm lens on a tripod mounted Nikon F. This was my base to craft the image.

Next, I needed to figure out my lighting. Even with the 20mm lens, I needed an aperture of f/11 or higher to ensure maximum depth of field. I also wanted to go for the drama. That meant using hard light from my flash. In that day all I had was small shoe mount flashes, specific Vivitar 283s. So I put two on the subject from behind for rim light and one in front, above the camera at about 45º. The backlights were one stop brighter than the main light. 

Now came the most significant challenge: how to trigger the camera and lights in sync with the gun firing. Never underestimate the mind of a photographer! Years earlier from a clearance table at a camera shop, I purchased a Honeywell Sound Trigger. I did not need such a device at the time but figured, someday, maybe. Today was the day!

The sound trigger connected to camera or flash by a household plug. The motor drive on the Nikon F also had a household plug, so it was a simple solution – plug the sound trigger into the camera’s motor. I hard-wired the flash above the camera to the sync terminal on the camera and, put super sensitive slave eyes on the other lights. A few tests and I could see everything was going off together. 

But, what exposure time was the muzzle blast? Answer: as much as you could get! After testing several weapons with ammunition of different grain weights, we found the best combination (around 1/15th second) and started working. It took several tries to get the sensitivity set correctly on the sound trigger, but once we did, we nailed the picture quickly. 

Today this image would be done as a highly involved Photoshop composite of multiple images. But back then, you needed an idea, your mind’s eye to visualize the result and enough technical knowledge to put it together, on one piece of film.